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The Art of Bracketology: The S-Curve

Bracketology: It’s all about the S-Curve, or is it?

By Steve Wolf, Jr. @stevenwolfjr

The NCAA recently finished its annual exercise in which it invites various college basketball media members to Indianapolis to participate in a mock tournament selection meeting.  The media members are assigned the role of selection committee members and assume that member’s role throughout the process.  The media selects the teams for the field, seeds the teams and places them in bracket, according to the same guidelines that the actual committee will use in three weeks.  This is what the top four lines of seeding looked like when they were finished.  

Tweaking is obviously needed, but who, what, where, and why? That’s where it gets tricky.  The NCAA has rules for its bracketing procedure such as BYU can’t play on Sunday, rematch limitations, conference limitations, site limitations; and these are followed, unless there is some other circumstance that can’t be avoided such as 11 teams from one conference making the tournament. This is why you won’t see three Big Ten teams in Phoenix, or three Big East teams in Boston. So let’s give it a shot.

As the fifth team in the S-Curve, Michigan State gets “protected” first after the four number one seeds.  That’s an easy one - move them to Saint Louis and kill a conference conflict and reward the Spartans with a game closer to home.  Now it gets tricky. What to do about North Carolina. We can either move them into the region with Syracuse, or into the region with Kentucky. We will move UNC to Atlanta, which means we must figure out what to do with Duke? Move them to Phoenix? It wouldn’t be an NCAA tournament without Duke getting the “easiest” draw in the field, so instead of moving them to Phoenix, let’s place them in Boston as Syracuse’s 2-seed. Let’s see how we’re doing so far.  By adding the overall seed totals of all four lines we can check the balance in the regions.  Atlanta: 32. Boston: 35. Saint Louis: 33.  Phoenix: 36. Atlanta is the easiest region, while Phoenix is the hardest region, not exactly fair to the overall number one seed, Kentucky.

Let’s move to the third line and see if we can even things out before we revisit the second line.  Our first issue is Marquette in Boston with Syracuse and Louisville, that’s a little Big East heavy for one site.  Flipping Marquette and Indiana would solve the Big East issue in Boston and the Michigan State - Indiana issue created in Saint Louis by moving the Spartans.  Georgetown seems okay in Phoenix, no issues there.  

And we’ve arrived at the 4-seed line.  Louisville and Syracuse are on a hypothetical collision course for the Boston Elite Eight game.  The committee likes to avoid regular season match-up if possible, so Louisville is getting moved, but where? To Atlanta and a rematch, although a juicy one, with Kentucky? To Saint Louis and a flip with UNLV, but then what about Ohio State - Michigan in Phoenix?  I think you’re beginning to see why this is so difficult and why crazy brackets are presented by the committee each year.  UNLV to Atlanta. Wichita State to Boston.  Michigan to Saint Louis and Louisville to Phoenix.  Let’s look at the seed balance.  

Ohio State, the lowest-ranked 1-seed, has the easiest path, while the highest-ranked 1-seed Kentucky has the hardest path.  More tweaking is needed.  Let’s flip Marquette and Georgetown - Big East for Big East - no conflicts.

Back to Atlanta.  Carolina - Duke. Duke - Carolina.  It’s probably equally fair to Kentucky and UNC to move the Tar Heels to Boston and send Duke to Atlanta, even though Ryan Kelly is probably going to leave the Georgia Dome with NIKE stomped across his chest as payback for 1992. To further balance the bracket, Wichita State is sent back to Atlanta and UNLV moved to Boston.

Kentucky, while not the easiest path, has ended up right back where it all began, with a region of true S-Curve opponents, and more importantly a potential shot at Duke with a spot in the Final Four on the line.  What more could Big Blue Nation ask for?  

    Bracketology is an inexact science. Joe Lunardi gets all the credit, but picking teams is the easy part of putting the field together; Top 25, one-bid conference winners, and teams in RPI Top 50 not already in the tournament, more or less. The art is in creating the bracket; and surprisingly, the committee has said that doesn’t begin until approximately 5pm on Selection Sunday.  That is probably why there are so many seeding errors and peculiar match-ups when the bracket is finally announced. Despite its imperfection, there is no more magical sight than the freshly printed copy of that blank bracket spitting out the printer on the Monday following Selection Sunday. That’s why every time you check Twitter and go to ESPN.com, Yahoo!, CBSSports, etc for the next month, there will be a new bracket.  It’s so much fun to try and out think the next guy, but in reality none of us have any idea what we are doing; we’re just killing time until March 11.

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